As diginomica has been tracking over the past 6 months, the impact of COVID-19 on the retail sector worldwide has been considerable and has caused a lot of damage. It has however also accelerated omni-channel transformation efforts as retailers have been forced to pivot to a new operating model as physical stores shuttered during lockdowns and consumer attention shifted online.
Two examples from the UK and Ireland, both in the sportswear sector, provided useful illustration of this at this week’s Salesforce Live conference. Sweaty Betty specialises in women's activewear, with over 50 boutiques in the United Kingdom, six boutiques in the United States and concessions in department stores Harrods and Bloomingdales, while Life Style Sports Limited is Ireland's largest sports retailer, operating 53 outlets across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Actually for Sweaty Betty, it wasn’t so much a pivot as a ramping up of existing trends, argues its SVP of e-commerce, Annabel Thorburn:
It’s probably more of a kind of magnifying what we were already doing from a digital and e-comm perspective. One of the key things we’ve found is we've become much more reactive to the customer mindset. So some of our longer term plans, we've slightly kind of pushed to the side. Initially, there was a lot about working out at home. We increased our home workout equipment offer to enable customers to set up their home gym. Running became much more popular, so we saw saw an uplift in our high support bra sales.
Then more recently, we've introduced what we call our explorer trousers which are kind of a commuter pant, but really comfy, because we don't necessarily think customers are going to revert back to fully work wear and will stick with the leggings and lycra that they find more comfortable. We've also been making much quicker trading decisions, being more reactive to trialing different types of promotions, trialing different types of ways to engage customers and doing that with a quicker turnaround.
For Life Style Sports, COVID encouraged many of its existing customers to explore its e-commerce offerings, according to the firm’s Go-To-Market Director Gordon Newman:
Obviously we had to close our stores for the majority of the summer, so what we saw was lots of customers that would have shopped with us in store shopped with us online for the first time. We really had a lot of focus on Customer Experience (CX) from end-to-end, right from discovery, search and merchandising through to delivery and returns. So really focusing on the end-to-end CX has been important for us.
We actually changed our returns proposition in February to start collecting returns from customers from their homes. The timing of that coincided with pandemic. It wasn't the plan, but that enabled us to deliver a great experience from end-to-end. regardless of whether the customer was able to find the right size, have the right fit or if they wanted to return it to us.…We've made lots of changes to the content that we're sharing. We've made lots of changes to our promotions our promotion frequency, trading differently. We have seen exactly the same trends [as Sweaty Betty] around high support bras, leggings and running.
Social media content has been an area of increased focus for Sweaty Betty, says Thorburn:
We've always had a strong social presence, but it's increasingly important with our community. They've had more time on their hands. So we've been sharing more workouts that they can do, we've been sharing more health and wellness talks and tutorials that they can access, as well the kind of regular, short, sharp, just amusing content that we have on there. To try and help people keep going, we did a daily challenge early in lockdown. So we in the virtual office were all participating as well in how many sit-ups can you do in a minute and tried to engage our community to join in as well. So all of those kind of things where we've increased doing something we were already doing, but increased the agility and flexibility we have with how we've approached it.
Both retailers use Salesforce’s Commerce Cloud to underpin their e-commerce operations. Thorburn says:
Commerce Cloud actually enabled us to scale quickly. Ultimately we saw a big step up in online trade and Salesforce made it pretty seamless for us, so that's clearly a big behind the scenes benefit. We moved from less frequent, bigger collection launches to more frequent small capsule launches as we tried to work to retain customers attention, knowing that they had more time on their hands…so that kind of rapid launching of products and promotions.
For Newman, the main benefit leans back to the CX focus:
What Commerce Cloud has allowed our teams to do is react to customer signals. We have a lot of flexibility around merchandising, we have huge flexibility around promotions, and it’s allowed us to execute those really quickly, and really effectively. We may make a decision on a Tuesday morning to do something, and by Wednesday morning that's in front of our customers. So that speed and flexibility of Commerce Cloud has really supported us in those decisions throughout the whole period of lockdown.
Despite the tumultuous events of the past few months, both retailers are upbeat about the future and both cite clear digitally-centric plans. For Thorburn:
I think for us it's really about continuing to accelerate our digital growth and continuing to push into new markets. We're anticipating that our category will continue to be the customer's choice even beyond the working from home periods. I think there's a lot of re-assessment that people have done and are thinking, ‘Why would I squeeze myself even back into those tight jeans, when I can wear my leggings?'. I know that I personally have made that choice.
Sustainability is already a focus for us, but also for customers in consideration of longer lasting product quality that they're looking for. From a purely from an e-comm point of view [we will] continue to focus on service, making sure we're driving innovation. We trialed a style coach during lockdown, which was actually some of our retail team who were offering virtual personal shopping for VIP customers. We'll continue to expand and innovate in areas like that, where we can find new ways of doing things, ensuring that customers continue to get our amazing service, but possibly in different in different channels.
Newman eyes up mobile growth and headless apps as priorities, adding:
We'll be focusing on personalizing experiences, because we serve a number of customers across a number of different segments that are actually making use of the personalization and customer group capabilities that will start to come through the platform over the coming months. We will probably start to trial some advanced size guides and we'll be working on sizing it as more customers get comfortable with shopping remotely or shopping online from home. And then, as always, there will be a real drive for much richer content and engaging content experiences, be that through our bra fitting guides, be that through our leggings guides, be that through our footwear guides, so that we actually help customers through that shopping journey…Ultimately, we're going to try and bring some joy to customers and really delight them through the shopping experience. If they haven't shopped with us before, we want that end-to-end experience to be great the first time and then we'll see some investment in our CRM to keep them coming back.
As for learnings to be shared with other retailers in an increasingly tough landscape, Newman advises pushing ahead with new ideas, but don’t forget the basics:
We always take an MVP approach. What's our minimum viable product to launch with? How can we make use of accelerators and actually make a start? Getting started is the most important thing. It's never going to be perfect. Even when it's established, it's still not going to be perfect, so don't wait for that point of perfection before you launch it. Focus on fulfilments and returns because that is the make or break. You could have fantastic search, fantastic merchandising, great content, but that whole Customer Experience, all of that effort you’ve put into creating that wonderful front end, falls apart if you can't get the delivery or the return [right]. So, think about the customer's end-to-end experience, and try new things. Once you have your basics in place, then go for it.
Thorburn takes a similarly robust approach at Sweaty Betty:
Don't be afraid to test and learn. Do things quickly, see if it works. Lean in or pull out of it. Even as an established business, that's what we've been doing for six months. I think that it's about being brave with that and not being afraid to learn and change your mind….You have to get it right, all the way through the journey, not just up front. So make sure that your delivery and returns propositions are really easy for the customer and give them confidence to buy from you.